How 'Planet Earth' Works

The shark shot captivated viewers with an ultra slow-motion sequence of a great white hunting a seal. A crew spent an entire month at sea using timing and a little luck to capture the impressive strike.

"Planet Earth," the runaway hit documentary series made by the BBC and the Discovery Channel, is more than a nature show. The "Planet Earth" crew has captured images of the planet that have never before been seen. How did they slowly float above the canopy of the Amazon rainforest? How did they film a snow leopard hunt on a near-vertical face of a Pakistani mountain range? How did they catch a great white shark leaping from the ocean to kill a seal?

With a budget of roughly $2 million per episode, this 11-part series was filmed over the course of five years in more than 200 locations, spread over 62 countries [source: USA Today]. It's easily the most comprehensive and wide-reaching documentary ever attempted.


BBC producer Alastair Fothergill was well-prepared to handle "Planet Earth" as a result of his work on "The Blue Planet." That show was a $10 million, eight-part series on the wonders of the ocean. The scope and cinematic style of "The Blue Planet" were a hit with viewers, so a follow-up series in the same style was a no-brainer.

More than 70 camera people worked seven-day weeks all over the world to put together "Planet Earth." The smash-hit BBC version was narrated by acclaimed British broadcaster David Attenborough. The Discovery Channel released the U.S. version with narration by award-winning actress Sigourney Weaver. In the U.S., the finale episode alone drew more than 5.5 million viewers from a wide range of demographics. Typically, only a couple of cable shows ever crack the top 10 in more than one age range. "Planet Earth" earned a top 10 spot in all three demographics nearly every week it aired [source: Media Life].

The DVD sales numbers have been just as impressive. In June 2007, The Hollywood Reporter estimated that 42,000 units of the series had been sold for an estimated $3.2 million haul. The box set broke the record for a high-definition DVD release.

In this article, we'll take a look at the creation of the series. From the innovative techniques to the challenging logistics; from the unbearable conditions to the dangers posed by man, animal and Earth; from the successes to the near-misses: This is how "Planet Earth" works.


Working and Living Conditions

A BBC cameraman spends some quality time with the emperor penguins of Antarctica.

Early conversations with "Planet Earth" camera crews may have gone like this: "So you want me to spend a year buried in a snow shelter, in weather 60 degrees below zero with 125 mph winds, to film thousands of penguins huddled together like a rugby scrum?" What's surprising is that the answer was a resounding "Sign me up!" Camera crews endured conditions that many living things can't even survive, often for long periods of time away from any human contact. From the bitter cold of the Antarctic tundra to the smoldering heat of the African plains, the "Planet Earth" team gave new meaning to the expression "suffering for your art."

Cameraman Wade Fairly and biologist Fred Oliver lived at the far reaches of Antarctica's Macey Island for a full year to capture the behavior of the emperor penguin. Their makeshift home was an old freight container about three and a half miles from the penguins' roost. They commuted on ATV quads each day using a GPS unit to find their way through the blinding snow. The harsh conditions they endured paid off with images of 10,000 penguins packed together for survival, protecting their fragile eggs.


In Costa Rica, the crew waited in the humid jungle every night for almost a month to film the calling of the lemur tree frog -- with little luck. The cameramen were forced to reverse their sleep patterns to coincide with the nocturnal amphibian. Only after being led to a private pond and convincing the caretaker to let them in were they able to get the footage they needed.

A two-man camera team shoots in New Mexico's Lechuguilla crystal caves.

Another challenge the crews faced was in the quarters they shared. Huts and tents became their home away from home. Even though most of the crew was experienced in wildlife filmmaking, the rigors of "Planet Earth" tested everyone's mettle. The home-base production team thought to send hundreds of wet wipes for "bathing" when they sent a team to the wintry Gobi desert. Unfortunately, frozen wet wipes didn't have the desired effect. As a result, living with unpleasant odors became second nature to most of the teams.

It wasn't just wet wipes that would freeze. Anything not tucked into sleeping bags iced over. This meant that cameramen had to sleep with a variety of things every night -- camera batteries, water and even urine bottles. If they forgot the latter, they had to thaw them by the fire the next morning -- not a pleasant task. Nuts, energy bars and dried meals served as the menu. Some sneaked vodka into their stash to warm their bellies.

Aside from the weather and the housing, the crews also withstood dizzying heights and dramatic depths. The sky team at Mount Everest tested the limits of high-altitude flying and filmmaking. Filmmakers in Mexico took the plunge into the world's deepest cave -- the Cave of Swallows -- at nearly 1,300 feet down. One crew survived what National Geographic calls the "cruelest place on Earth": Africa's Danakil Desert. Virtually no life can exist here, the lowest and hottest place on the planet. Dallol Springs might sound like a nice vacation destination, but it's actually a toxic landscape of living lava, situated on the world's lowest active volcano in the middle of the Danalki. The crew had little sleep there, as one crew member described it as trying to nap on top of a "boiling cauldron" [source: Nicholson-Lord].

In the next section, we'll look at the logistics involved to pull off "Planet Earth."


Logistics of 'Planet Earth'

Award-winning actress Sigourney Weaver records the Planet Earth narration in a sound studio.

Ask any film production manager or coordinator how difficult it is to pull off an ordinary film shoot and they'll say that it takes a lot of hard work from many people. Now imagine shipping equipment you've never worked with to the other side of the world or making travel arrangements to places you didn't know existed. The production staff of "Planet Earth" spent years prepping for the job. Securing permits, hiring crews, lining up equipment and booking travel were only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

The BBC has the advantage of extensive resources. There are specialists for virtually every facet of the process. Need a camera lens shipped to Outer Mongolia? No problem, just ask the shipping expert. Need someone to break down the risks of breathing sulfuric acid? Easy, just consult the resident health guru. Many of the crew underwent survival training from extreme weather authorities to learn everything from how to prevent frostbite to how much water you need to drink in 110-degree heat. Then there's the BBC safety store and "kit cage." This is where the film units outfit their expedition. Tents, climbing ropes, life jackets, gas masks, first-aid kits, caving gear, scuba tanks and maps are just a handful of the items selected and packed up.


Getting film permits for many of the locations proved to be quite a challenge as well. The inhabitants of King Charles Land, an island in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Norway, hadn't seen human visitors since 1980. The BBC tried to get permission to film there for 25 years before finally being allowed for "Planet Earth." It took a year to gain access to the rugged Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan because of the political instability of the region.

On thing that was crucial to the success of filming "Planet Earth" was the help and cooperation of the locals. Everywhere they traveled, BBC crews were assisted by the indigenous people of the region in one way or another. From having a pizza delivered at 14,000 feet in the Himalayas to getting Pakistani helicopter pilots to fly the crew around K2, the help the locals provided was invaluable. Guides led teams through jungles and deserts, helping to keep the crew safe while sharing their knowledge of the area to find reclusive wildlife. There were scattered encounters with conmen and thieves, but they were overshadowed by the tremendous amount of support most of the native inhabitants provided.

Continue to the next section to learn about some of the revolutionary equipment and techniques used in filming.­


Equipment and Techniques

A crew member makes final preparations on the heligimbal camera rig.

The two most important factors in the success of "Planet Earth" were the equipment and new techniques used. The series was the first nature program to be shot entirely in the high-definition format. The resolution on hi-def cameras produces an image that's remarkable in its clarity and allows for filming in very low light.

The hero of the series was no doubt the heligimbal -- a gyro-stabilized camera housing mounted underneath the front of a helicopter. A gimbal is a support that allows an object to remain horizontal even when tipped. Two gimbals used together create vertical and horizontal stabilization. The heligimbal uses this principle to keep the camera pointed straight and held steady. A cameraman operates the unit from inside the helicopter with a remote control. The heligimbal was responsible for high-altitude footage as well as the overhead shots of the various hunts. Powerful zoom lenses enabled the helicopter to remain a good distance away from the animals.


What about those shots floating slowly over jungle canopies? This was achieved by using a cinebulle to navigate over terrain without the wind created by helicopter blades bending and breaking the treetops. It may sound high-tech, but it's pretty simple -- it's a hot air balloon equipped with a platform instead of a basket. Inventor Dany Cleyet-Marrel used a large fan to steer the unit. This remarkably basic technique produces rock-steady sequences that graze treetops without disturbing them. The one drawback is that it isn't the most responsive aircraft. On more than one occasion the cinebulle flew straight into the trees instead of over them.

Cameramen on "Planet Earth" used whatever means necessary to land the shot.

If you've watched "Planet Earth," one sequence that's bound to stand out is the pride of lions hunting and feeding on an elephant -- in the dead of night. Production teams used walls of infrared lights that are detected only by special cameras. To the human and animal eye, it was pitch-dark. The resulting images were crystal-clear and gave us a view of nocturnal animal activity that's never been witnessed before.

Cameramen used waterproof housings for underwater and cold weather sequences. The crew sealed cameras in containers and many times left them alone to be operated by remote control. This allowed technicians to remain a safe distance from the scene. For rare appearances of jumpy animals, cameras were hooked up to motion sensors that would operate the camera only when activity abounded.

The key with to these technologies is in not disturbing the surrounding environment. A shot of the Amazon treetops bending and breaking from helicopter wind doesn't work. And what kind of behavior could we expect from animals if they knew they were being watched in the dark or from above? ­

In the next section, we'll look at some of the unprecedented achievements of "Planet Earth."­


'Planet Earth' Firsts

This crew gets a close-up view of an uninterested African lion.

In creating "Planet Earth," the filmmakers wanted to capture images that had never been filmed, shoot in locations that no cameraman had ever been to and use equipment in new and innovative ways. The outcome of these lofty goals was a long list of first-time filmmaking accomplishments.

It took three separate trips to Papua New Guinea to find and film the camera-shy bird of paradise. Camera crews rose at four in the morning to get in place before the birds awoke. The BBC team left out fake cameras so the birds would get acclimated to seeing something unusual in their environment. For eight weeks, cameraman Paul Stewart spent 14 hours a day every day in a cramped hideout waiting for the ultimate shot. His patience paid off as he was able to capture the rare blue bird of paradise performing his mating dance for a female suitor.


Most filmed animal hunts are actually many hunts edited together to complete a story. "Planet Earth" strived to film the entirety of an impala hunt by African wild dogs in the "Pole to Pole" segment. To achieve this goal, a heligimbal team worked with ground crews to spot and track the dogs. Once the ground team found a pack, they radioed to the helicopter and the chase was on. The tricky part of filming the hunt was keying in on the right dog at the right time. The long zoom lens on the helicopter rig allows only viewing of small areas, so once the camera is focused on one dog, it's difficult to find another. Thanks to the crew's perseverance, viewers watched with amazement as the dogs worked together in a series of flanking maneuvers to trap a young impala. Even though the impala was able to escape into a river, seeing the hunt from beginning to end told us more about the dogs' hunting behavior than we'd ever known.

The Antarctic team prepares to set out for a long day of shooting in sub-zero temperatures.

Sometimes, the locations themselves were firsts. From the record-breaking high-altitude filming of Mount Everest to the hi-def camera work of the Lechuguilla caves of New Mexico, the filmmakers went to any extreme to land never-before-seen images. Underwater cameramen dove through the ice of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake at nearly one mile, to capture scenes of the ocean-like life underneath. The lake was so cold, boiling water was poured over the air tanks and regulators to keep them from freezing mid-dive.

The "Planet Earth" team also broke new ground using innovative techniques. The crew used a motion control system to film intricate time-lapse shots of the changing earth. Motion control automates the camera's movement, allowing an extremely slow and steady progression of shots. Time-lapse photography uses an intervalometer mechanism to shoot short bits of film at a set interval over a period of time. No one had ever used these two techniques in tandem before. Shots of the different stages were blended together in the editing process. The results were moving camera shots of a changing autumn mountain landscape, Japanese cherry blossoms in bloom and a sand storm in the Sahara.

In the next section, we'll look at the animal, natural and human dangers the "Planet Earth" team encountered.


The Dangers of Filming

A polar bear faces off with a walrus.

Filming wildlife and nature can be dangerous business. Poisonous plants, predatory animals and harsh weather were just a few of the dangers the "Planet Earth" production faced. Getting the shot is important, but keeping everyone safe from harm is paramount.

Walruses may look like the teddy bears of the deep, but they can actually be pretty ferocious. Walruses feed on seals, and their method of killing them is to squeeze the seal and gorge it with their tusks. Cameraman Doug Anderson ignored the fears of his local guide and hopped into the water with the walruses. His mistake was not checking behind him. A mother walrus struck him on the head from behind and swam away before coming back for more. Doug hit back this time, jamming his camera into her side. This must have scared her, as she left again for good with one lucky and dazed cameraman in her wake.


Researcher Jeff Wilson accompanied a camera crew to Borneo to film the flying lemur, or colugo. When they stopped to shoot, Wilson put his hand on a light stand and was bitten by a pit viper, one of the most poisonous snakes on the planet. Locals rushed him by boat and car to the nearest hospital -- nearly 25 miles away. The fact that he was bitten on the hand and was able to remain calm may have saved his life.

The crew filming wild pumas in Chile got quite a scare when they realized they were being approached by a protective mother. The puma crept slowly on her belly toward them, a sign that an attack may be forthcoming. The two-man team stuck close together to appear larger and more intimidating. There was also pepper spray on hand just in case. They were able to wait out the puma by staying calm and allowing her to check them out from a safe distance.

The high-altitude team shooting Mount Everest had a close call when a Nepali engineer's oxygen supply failed. At that altitude, a lack of oxygen can bring on a potentially fatal form of altitude sickness called hypoxia. The engineer's hands and fingers trembled and his eyes rolled back in his head -- not a good sign. When he became unresponsive, the co-pilot leapt into action and tried to share his oxygen before realizing his tank had failed as well. The pilot then dropped 10,000 feet in 10 seconds in an emergency descent that one producer described as "unbelievably painful and frightening." The engineer was shaken up, but lucky not to suffer any permanent injury.

In southern India, a crew filming smooth-coated river otters got caught up in some human danger. The "bandit king" Veerappan was notorious in the area and said to be responsible for more than 120 murders. For 30 years he stole, kidnapped, poached and smuggled his way into becoming one of the most wanted men in the country. As it turned out, two of his captured men had just been condemned to death, and it was rumored that Veerappan was looking to kidnap the BBC team as hostages. The crew worked during daylight with armed guards for a period, and then were told that it would be best if they left altogether -- which they did. Their camp was attacked a few days later and in 2004, Veerappan was captured and killed.

In the next section, we'll look at some of the shots the crew got just in the nick of time.


Last-minute Shots

The elusive snow leopard in the mountains of Pakistan made for a challenging filming experience.

The unpredictability of the animal kingdom was one of the many challenges the "Planet Earth" team faced. Waiting for days, weeks and months without getting the footage they needed was one of the more frustrating aspects for the filmmakers. But many times, just when they were about to give up hope, Mother Nature came through.

The breathtaking shots of Venezuela's Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfalls, came on the fourth and final attempt. The falls are typically shrouded in cloud cover, but on the last pass, the skies opened, and there was a 45-minute window in which the crew captured the footage.


It was on the final day of filming that cameraman Doug Allan got the shot of a polar bear descending the mountain with her cubs to start the long journey to the sea. Likewise, the crew that sought to find the tree frogs of Costa Rica searched high and low for a month with no luck. They thought they were going to go home empty-handed, but on the final day, they got a tip from a local who led them to frog nirvana. There were thousands of frogs of a dozen species, and the two-man crew shot till sunrise.

Even though the budget accommodated lengthy waits, there was a limit, and the crew in Botswana had reached it. They were looking to film wild African dogs hunting impala. The crew spent two weeks filming and more than 50 hours in the air with the heligimbal -- with little success. Producer Mark Linfield's patience paid off, as they captured the hunt in the final ten minutes of the shoot.

Any filmmaker can tell you that dumb luck often plays a part in the success of the project. This was the case with the amazing footage of the snow leopard hunting markor mountain goats in the mountains of Pakistan. The crew had arranged for a helicopter to pick them up after six weeks of filming markor in their extreme mountain habitat. They had some good footage, but none of the elusive snow leopard -- an animal that's rarely been caught on film. When the transport helicopter didn't show up, the crew set up their cameras one last time and was handsomely rewarded. Not only did they get footage of a snow leopard, but an exciting hunt and chase over near vertical terrain -- all in the final hour of the final day. The helicopter arrived the following day to transport the elated team back to base camp.

To learn more about the Discovery Channel and the world around us, you can look at the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Strauss, Gary. "Behold 'Planet Earth' in all its glory." USA Today, 2007.
  • Fitzgerald, Toni. "Big bang for Discovery's 'Planet Earth'.", April 25, 2007.
  • Nicholson-Lord, David. "Planet Earth" - The making of an epic series." BBC Books, 2006.
  • "Planet Earth" - The Complete BBC Series" BBC Films, 2006.
  • "Planet Earth" - Firsts." BBC Press Office, 2006.­02_february/01/earth_firsts.shtml